Sunday, May 22, 2016

Artefacts are the skeletons of people's minds

The words above popped into my mind recently as I was thinking about the archaeological stuff I wanted to teach the first years. I wrote them on a piece of paper and drew a box around them, to distinguish it from other fragments of thoughts, scribbled in passing on the same piece of paper, which go something like this:

Huxley - Heaven and Hell
World of Chickens

I will figure out what I was thinking about them another time. For now, I'll just try to excavate my thoughts around the bony artefacts. I was thinking about them as physical skeletons, fleshed out by wishes, dreams, meanings, social interactions, the accumulation of touches, the passing of time, the clothing of use.

The brain, of course, already has a bone in the form of the skull. When I'm thinking about the skeletons of mind, I mean the artefacts are the hard bits of the soft brain tissue. They just happen to be outside the cranium and sometimes vastly larger than it.

While living, in its systemic context, the artefact can be visible or invisible depending on where or when it is interacted with. It can be in the foreground or the background. It might appear in dreams as something half-registered, barely impinging on the dream-consciousness. It might be perceived only from its shadow. 

(And indeed this begs the question of virtual worlds and how humans interact with objects which cross different registers of existence).

The artefact moves in and out of our perception in a pattern much like a dynamical system. Then people for whom the artefact was meaningful pass on, or discard it. Eventually, it ends up at the point of lowest energy - it's archaeological context.

Dynamical system. Image courtesy of Henry Harrison

The layers of organs, muscles, skin, slowly decay as it falls out of memory. The forces of taphonomy start to strip it down and pare it back from corpse to skeleton.

Let's take the metaphor further and think about the mineralisation of the once dynamic and malleable artefact. It takes on the character of stone and sinks like one to the bottom of the pool where only the rare worm tunnels through the silt to touch its surface in a polychaete kiss.

And then we dig it up.......and hope to apprehend its place within the brain as a calcreted thought.